Lessons From A Broken Leg
At the start of last term, an unfortunate accident with a football left me with a broken leg and a wounded sense of pride. Overnight, I had a whole new set of challenges to deal with. Now, as I prepare to return to Cambridge, I’ve been reflecting on how my summer term could have been less of a struggle.
The morning after my accident, I naively ‘crutched’ all the way from my house on Panton Street to Pembroke. I had thought I lived nearby, but that morning felt like a marathon. By the time I arrived I was exhausted and emotional, and I vowed never to do it again. I am incredibly grateful to Pembroke for letting me move into a room in Foundress and for paying for my taxis to and from lectures. Without those changes, carrying on would have seemed unimaginable.
However, I noticed that the emphasis was very much on helping me academically – not with day-to-day activities, many of which became exhausting and time-consuming. I think this put an unfair amount of pressure on my friends; they had to be the ones to buy me ready meals, help with the laundry, or push me into town in a wheelchair. And if they hadn’t, I really don’t know how I would have coped.
Looking back, I feel that there could have been a more formal system in place. Having a student with a broken leg is nothing new for a college, yet I had to figure out a lot of things on my own – like how do you have a shower (on crutches) without getting your leg wet?
The College’s ethos seemed very much that I should just ask the people around me for help. My life became an endless “please could you open the door?” and “would you mind carrying my tray?”. While I’m grateful for everyone who did these things for me, I feel that it shouldn’t be down to each person with a mobility issue to fight for their rights to move around.
My Natsci subject dinner included a drinks reception in the Thomas Gray Room, but it was only when I reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to it that I realised I would not be able to attend after all. I could hear the chatter of students and supervisors above me, just out of reach. It hurt.
It's clear that architects in the 14th century didn’t think much about accessibility. There are so many beautiful old doors, steps and rooms around College that their inaccessibility could be seen as justified. After all, they do paint a picture of what ancient college life was like. Yet we've redesigned so many other aspects of college life – admitting women for example – that it seems absurd to hide behind the notion that a college can't change simply because of its history.
I'm ashamed to say that before I broke my leg, I never really thought about accessibility. For the first two terms we held PemArt sessions down in Old Cellars, which is perhaps one of the least accessible locations in College. After I broke my leg we started holding them in Foundress, and we intend to continue doing so.
Foundress is a beacon of hope for someone on crutches. I never used to like its modern architecture, but living there with a broken leg has changed my view. It’s the only (almost) accessible accommodation block in College. I say ‘almost’ because of the heavy outer doors that are found throughout College and are a nightmare to shift on one leg.
The door to the trough servery is perhaps one of the worst of these. Not only is it heavy, it is also positioned right at the top of some steps with a narrow tread. In order to open it, I had to balance (on one leg) on the top step and push with my arm. Once I had a big enough opening, I had to trap a crutch in the door and lever myself up onto the next step. This door does not seem particularly beautiful or historically significant, so why is it still there?
Of course, it would be an oversight to ignore some of the major improvements that have taken place since the College was founded. The library is one of the most successful of these – a modern extension alongside the Victorian architecture combines history with accessibility. I imagine making similar changes to the rest of College could be expensive and hard to get planning for, but surely not out of the question. In the meantime, I’d like to propose a few more achievable ideas:
1. Automatic doors! Put automatic buttons next to the doors to the Servery, Foundress, and all of the gates into college. 2. Stair lifts to rooms like the Thomas Gray Room and N7. 3. A ramp at the entrance to the Servery and the rest of Trough.
It turns out that having a broken leg is a great conversation starter. During my time on crutches, I had many helpful interactions with porters, gardeners, bedders, catering staff and even strangers on the street. I’d like to thank them for making my exam term a little brighter. And, of course, my DoS, friends and the College administration teams for everything they did too.
I’m looking forward to an exciting new term in Cambridge. A term of regenerated mobility and enthusiasm for opening doors. I’m incredibly grateful to be back on both legs again, but I don’t want to lose sight of what my time on crutches has taught me. My hope is that this could be the start of a new conversation about accessibility and student support in College – one that might even lead to some changes.